Maxwell stood alone at the abandoned bus stop. Wind blew across the thin fabric of his hospital gown, raising goose bumps along his exposed skin. Across the empty street, the old church sat in shadows, and the bell atop its steeple rang out, echoing into the night. Twelve times the bell rang, and Maxwell listened, the lingering space between each reverberating chime like a fermata written on a living sheet of music.
The church too appeared abandoned, but somewhere within, someone kept its weak pulse alive, creating music amidst midnight’s silence. A monotone note that repeated, bounding off crumbling and graffitied walls, until the final sound floated away, beyond where Maxwell could see.
As if the renewed quiet were an invitation, two lights appeared from down the street, dissolving the surrounding darkness as the chugging, hulking vehicle drew closer. The bus stopped in front of Maxwell, and the door swung open. The driver didn’t speak, nor remove his hands from the vibrating wheel, nor take his eyes off the road ahead.
Maxwell stepped onto the bus without a word. The door closed behind him. Before he could walk forward to find a seat, the bus began to drive. In the reflection of the rearview mirror, the old church disappeared behind a black veil. All that remained was what existed inside the bus, and the headlights’ yellow beams, eating away at the shadows like maggots on a corpse.
Three people sat on either side of the aisle, each taking up their own row of seats. Closest to the front was a tall, dark-haired and severe-looking man. He wore a tailored and expensive three-piece black suit that helped to distract from the skeletal melancholy of his face. He was handsome in the way a drug addict can be—gaunt with a pale, defined jawline more from emaciation or self-destruction than anything else, and his eyes were black and sunken deep into their sockets like he hadn’t slept in days. No gestures or words were exchanged as Maxwell walked past.
Behind the gaunt man, sitting in the opposite row, was a young woman, fidgeting with anxiety and rosy-cheeked as if she’d just finished a strenuous run. Where the first man appeared overdressed, she presented the opposite: Nothing but two towels were wrapped around her, one covering her body and the other carefully knotted around her head. The towels were still wet; a small puddle of water had formed on the bus floor around her feet. When Maxwell walked by, she shot her arm up towards him and inhaled sharply as if about to speak, before straightening back into her previous clenched posture, and turned to look out the window into the black abyss.
Sitting at the back of the bus, and staring directly at Maxwell, was a child. She was dressed in pajamas. They were decorated with little pink and purple elephants. Her arms were wrapped around a stuffed rabbit. Its ears were long and floppy and hung down past its feet. The rabbit looked as if it was once white, but was now dirtied and loved until its fur had turned brown. She squeezed the rabbit tight, holding it close to her face like it was a lifebuoy keeping her from sinking into an ocean only she could see.
Maxwell took a seat in the row just ahead of the child, and looked out the window into the darkness.
After a few moments of silence, the sound of gentle footsteps approached from behind, and shallow, raggedy breaths began tickling the back of his neck.
“This is Franklin. Franklin says hi.”
Maxwell turned, and shoved directly in front of his face was the rabbit, held by two little hands underneath its arms. When he failed to respond, the child spoke again: “He’s my ticket. So you can’t hold him. I’m not supposed to let him go yet. He says hi, though.”
Maxwell looked around the bus, hoping for one of the other passengers to speak up or corral the child so he wouldn’t have to interact with her. The man continued facing forward, but the woman watched, her eyes piercing and wide as if trying to communicate in place of words, her right fist clenched and trembling upon her bouncing knee.
“Where’s yours?” the child asked. “Do you have a ticket, too?”
Before he could answer, a loud and authoritative voice came from the front of the bus: “Leave him be. Sit down.
The child’s eyes fixated on the space over Maxwell’s shoulder like a deer after hearing a gunshot, and she bolted back to her seat.
The man had now twisted around to face the two, and his gaze shifted between Maxwell and the scorned child. “That’s none of your business,” he said. “I’m sure your parents taught you better.”
Though it was apparent the man was reprimanding the child, Maxwell felt as if he were speaking to the both of them. A thick layer of guilt seeped into his body, prickling the skin like his limbs had fallen asleep.
“If he wants to show you, he will.”
The child tucked her knees into her chest and squeezed the rabbit again, burying her face into its matted fur.
Maxwell waited for the man to stop glaring and face forward, before getting the child’s attention with a subtle hand gesture. She looked up, the rabbit still concealing the bottom half of her face, her eyes glazed and red with tears.
“Hi, Franklin,” he mouthed, and waved at the stuffed animal, forcing a closed smile.
The child pinched the rabbit’s limb between her fingers and wagged it back and forth. “He’s not very nice,” she whispered, her eyes darting towards the back of the man’s head. “I don’t like him.”
“Me neither,” Maxwell whispered back. “I bet he’s just grumpy he doesn’t have his own rabbit like Franklin.”
She giggled into the stuffed animal’s floppy ears. “Yeah. I bet that’s it.”
Maxwell began to turn around, when the child tapped on his shoulder. “Psst.”
Just outside of view, he could feel the woman’s gaze burning into the side of his head, communicating as clearly as if she were screaming out loud, aching for him to acknowledge her.
“Psst,” the child tried again.
“What is it?”
“Why are you wearing that funny dress?”
“It’s not a dress. They give it to you when you go where I went.”
“Where did you go?”
Maxwell opened his mouth to speak, and as the first word was about to escape, he realized the memory wasn’t there. He didn’t have an answer. He swore he knew—that only a moment before, he knew—but it was gone. There was nothing.
“I’m not sure,” he said.
“Oh. That’s okay. You’ll remember soon. Once we get closer.”
Maxwell paused. “You think so?”
“Yep. I know so. All the fuzzy stuff from before—it’ll start going back into your head soon. The bus does that. But you have to wait and be quiet.”
“How do you know that?”
“ ‘Cause. I know lots of things I didn’t used to. Franklin didn’t used to be Franklin. He was just Bunny Rabbit. But the road started to get darker, and all the stuff outside the window went away. And then I remembered his name is Franklin. So I bet you’ll remember where you got your dress. Just as long as you remembered your ticket.”
Maxwell stared into the child’s eyes for a long time. Waiting until he could see through her. But the child was there, staring back.
“Okay,” he said.
When he turned, there was the woman. Her eyes danced back and forth between brief, urgent glances at Maxwell and the corners of the bus as if following ghosts moving amongst the shadows. She gestured with one hand beneath her knee, compelling Maxwell to come sit beside her.
He approached and slid into the woman’s row of seats, his feet making a wet slap as they sank into the thin surface of water spreading out from her dripping body.
“Is it coming back to you?” she asked, her gaze focused on the back of the bus driver’s head.
Maxwell kept a watchful eye on the man in the row opposite and ahead of them as he spoke: “No, not yet.”
“Do you have it on you?”
He looked down at his hospital gown and held out his palms. “Where would I keep it?”
“Well, you need to find it. You wouldn’t have been let on here if you hadn’t brought something.”
In the rearview mirror over the driver’s head, Maxwell could see the eyes reflected back, staring at him. Black eyes, obsidian eyes, cloaked in shadows but backlit by the sickly yellow headlights dispelling the evidence of night like windshield wipers in the rain.
“What happens if I don’t?”
“You will,” she answered. “Because you have to. You don’t have a choice. You got on the bus.”
Maxwell looked at the woman, studying her face, her limbs, the wet knots of hair dangling from her shoulders, the water falling from the strands and landing on her pink skin like rain streaming over a cliff. As hard as he tried to focus, her features seemed to shift, refusing to settle in place, like a Rubik’s cube rearranging itself before his eyes. “Do I know you?”
“Does it matter?” She opened the clenched fist resting upon her knee, revealing a small diamond ring, as if the whole time she’d been clutching a lump of coal, squeezing until the pressure transformed it into what she now displayed. “I can’t lose this. It’s all that’s left before everything else leaves me. Just because you made it on the bus, doesn’t mean it’s over yet.”
The sight of the ring burned somewhere within a hole in his mind. Where there was once a blank space, a fire had been lit, cleansing the debris of amnesia from one corner of the empty room that had enveloped him upon stepping foot inside the bus.
“What is that?” he asked.
“It’s an anchor. Find yours, before we reach our stop. That’s all that matters.”
Her face was coming back into focus. Pieces of the past gluing themselves back together. Like flashes of light bursting through the canopy of trees while driving down a wooded street, brief glimpses into memories shone through in her image before fizzling away: A beach. A bed. A television screen. Laughter. An empty room. Silence. Wires. Machinery. And tears. Constant throughout them all was the feeling of comfort—comfort that faded more and more with each glimpse, until all that remained was fear. The kind of fear you don’t forget. And yet in that moment, it was as if it were the first time he’d ever felt it. A troubling and foreign sense of déjà vu overtook him, and without another word, Maxwell stood, walked up to the gaunt man, and sat down.
Refusing to look away from the front of the bus, the man spoke: “Enjoying the ride?”
“I need my ticket.”
“Why do you think I have it?” The man turned to face Maxwell, his eyes pockets of blue ocean water.
“Because I don’t know you.”
“I don’t know you either. I know about you, though. Not much. But some. If you’d just be patient, I’m sure it’ll come to you.”
“I’m running out of time.”
The man opened his mouth and laughed. “Do you see a clock? Look outside.”
The world surrounding the bus was a swirling vortex, like layers of gray fog blown to and fro in a pitch-black night. There was no longer a road beneath the wheels. The vehicle was propelling forward like a spaceship in the cosmos. “We’re all strangers here,” the man continued. “You don’t know the child. I don’t know the child. You could ask her the same question, and she’d have the same answer. It’s between you and the driver. But no one talks to the bus driver.”
“I know,” said Maxwell.
“Ah, see? It’s coming back to you, bit by bit. Be patient. Enjoy the ride.” He gestured behind him towards the little girl, kicking her feet and mumbling to the stuffed rabbit. “This will always be easier for those who don’t question it. That much, I know. And that much, I can tell you.”
“What else? What else can you tell me? Anything.”
The man peered over his shoulder, at the woman staring into her trembling legs. “I can tell you that she’s been here the longest. She was alone when I got on. Then the child arrived. Then you. Because of that, I’d imagine she knows more than me. So I’m not the one to ask. But asking questions—that’s my point. It’s probably best not to. Do you want to see something?”
Without waiting for an answer, the man reached into his jacket pocket and brandished a switchblade. Its handle was black, and engraved into the side were two initials. He pushed the button beneath the hilt, and the silver, serrated blade popped out.
“This was my father’s,” the man said. He twisted the knife around in his hand, and let it dangle from his fingers as he talked, eyeing it like it was a mouse he’d captured in the kitchen. “He always had it on him. Every day. Always be ready, he’d tell me. Always be prepared for the worst. You have to always be prepared for the worst, and when it happens—which it will—you can’t act out of emotion. You have to react like you would with any mundane, day-to-day task. Accept that it’s happening, and do whatever you have to do—like… like you’re taking out the trash. That’s how you keep going. You put your head down, and you put one foot in front of the other. Just like with anything else.”
He folded the blade back but kept holding it, clutching it in his fist like the woman clutching the ring. “My father always talked like that. When I was a kid, he seemed so wise. Like he knew everything there was to know. Like he was invincible with knowledge. But then he dropped dead of a heart attack. You can’t prepare your way out of that. You can’t outsmart a clogged artery.
“And now I’m older than he was when he died. I always held on to this thing to remind me that maybe I’d be as wise and prepared as my father when I grew up. But just a little better. A little smarter. Yet, here I am. I don’t feel smarter. I don’t feel prepared. In fact, I feel like an idiot. Wandering through life. Utterly clueless. And that used to bother me. But now, I’ve realized that he probably felt the exact same way. He just did what he knew despite it all: Head down, one foot in front of the other. Don’t think about it. Just… act until the curtains draw.”
Maxwell focused on the man’s nose, studying the black pores dotting his sun-starved face, unable to look him in the eyes. “Why are you telling me this?”
“Because you seem like you could use this more than me.” The man hesitated, but handed the sheathed switchblade to Maxwell. “Just as a reminder. Whatever is going to happen will happen. And when it does… act. Don’t overthink it.”
“But this is your ticket,” said Maxwell. “It must be. I can’t take this.”
“Maybe,” the man answered, turning away to look out the window into oblivion. “Maybe not. We’ll have to wait and see when we arrive.”
“Where are we going?”
“I’m sure you already know that. Failing to accept what you already know won’t do you any favors.”
Maxwell fell silent. He stood to leave, and without prompt, the man talked into the window: “It feels like returning from the dead, doesn’t it? All these memories pouring back in. Like someone finally remembered to pay the electricity bill. I can see again.”
“Something about it,” said Maxwell. “It doesn’t feel right.”
“Well, that’s the thing: Once you’re out of the dark, you may not like what you see. One foot in front of the other, though. Yeah? Left-right-left-right. There you are. Left-right-left-right. Go on then. And try to enjoy yourself. We’ll be there soon.”
Maxwell stepped out into the isle and began walking back to his seat. As he passed, a hand gripped his arm. The woman looked up at him, squeezing and digging her nails into his flesh, trying to pull him closer. Her whole body trembled and a terrible grimace pulled the skin taut against her clenched jaw.
“I remember everything,” she said. “I remember… everything. I’m fucking scared. Please help me.”
Maxwell allowed her grip to guide him into the seat beside her. “There’s nothing to be scared of,” he lied, and slid his hand over hers in hopes of taking away the anxiety. A moment of panic set in as he felt the fire burning away at more hidden memories when he looked into her face. Reality was becoming fluid, melting away from the inside, but he brushed these feelings away. The things becoming clearer were things he didn’t wish to be revealed. Pockets of time separate to the space within the bus flashed behind his eyes, and he pushed the images down like stifling vomit. But what still remained was the impressions those moments had carved into the walls of his empty room. There was no place to escape. The bus became like a coffin, an echo chamber, forcing the poisonous residue down his throat, screaming at him to accept what he knew. Still, Maxwell fought back.
The woman held up the ring, the growing light of the ethereal cosmos through the window glinting off of the diamond. “I never forgot about you,” she said. “I did everything I could. I just hope you can forgive me.”
“I don’t understand, honey.” Maxwell flinched as the word reflexively left his mouth.
Outside, thunderous booms erupted in the void, shaking the bus like a plane during turbulence. The man began humming loudly to himself, letting the violence rock his body back and forth in his seat.
“I did it for you,” said the woman, placing a hand against Maxwell’s cheek to keep his focus as the world became a lit powder keg. “I knew I’d be put at the top of the list. There was no time. It was all I could do, and I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry it didn’t work. But I had to hope. I had to try. Didn’t I?”
“We’ll be there soon,” was all Maxwell could say. He stared down at the switchblade resting on his lap, avoiding the images flooding in, aware of it all.
“Can’t you listen to me? I’m fucking scared, Max. I’m not losing you again—I won’t.” She slid the ring on her finger. “But there’s nothing else I can do.”
“I’ve got my ticket,” he answered. “Thank you, Melissa. I wish you hadn’t.”
The convulsions rushed down through her body in one mighty burst, bringing forth tears; the levees had collapsed under the weight of what they now both knew. “Please don’t say that. What would you have wanted me to do? Just watch? Do nothing?”
“It wouldn’t have changed a thing,” he said. “Maybe we wouldn’t be on the same bus, but they’re all going to the same place. How would you have known what was coming, though? I don’t blame you. There’s nothing to forgive. I just wish you hadn’t done it. That’s all.”
“It’s a sin,” she whimpered. “It doesn’t make sense. You shouldn’t be here with me.”
“No such thing,” Maxwell replied. A wave of calm had come over him, as if he’d submerged himself in water. The deafening sounds of the void dissolving around the bus fell away into a church bell ringing—one single, reverberating chime. He was a man strapped to the electric chair, listening to God speak His final word. “It’s okay to be scared. It’ll be over soon. We’re almost there.”
The woman glanced down at the switchblade, now nestled tight inside his closed fist. “Is that it?”
Maxwell stood, letting his hand slip away from her grasp. “I’m gonna go check on the kid.” He pointed out the window. “Look.”
The world was shifting, returning back into a moonlit, city street. There were no adjacent buildings, no markers or signs, but they had arrived on the final path home, traveling down the middle of a desolate plane. A gentle bounce shook the bus as the wheels touched down upon asphalt. The headlights again began swallowing up the pervasive shadows, burning through the darkness to reveal the empty road ahead.
The woman turned to watch, leaning against the glass to catch any glimpse of what was to come. Maxwell walked to the back of the bus and sat down beside the child and her stuffed rabbit.
“Hi,” he said. “How’s Franklin?”
The child’s eyes reflected the fear within himself, and it made him uncomfortable being forced to confront it. He wished for his own stuffed animal, something he could speak to and bury his face into, and hide behind.
“He says he wants to go to bed. We want to go to sleep. We’re tired.”
“You are asleep,” said Maxwell. “Can’t you tell?”
“No,” the child answered flatly. “How do you know?”
“ ‘Cause. I just know. It’s all too silly to not be a dream, don’t you think?”
“What does Franklin think?”
The child leaned her ear into the rabbit’s face. “He says maybe.”
“You know what I think? I think you’re in your bed right now. Safe and sound. You and Franklin.”
The child didn’t respond, but shifted uncomfortably and curled into the corner beside the window, propping the rabbit up between the wall and her head as a pillow.
“You just hang on to Franklin,” said Maxwell. “So that way he’ll wake up with you. And before you know it, you’ll both be right back underneath the covers. Alright?”
“Okay,” said the child.
Maxwell stood as the bus began rolling to a stop. “You’re very brave,” he said. “I wish I were as brave as you.”
The other passengers arose and lined up in the center isle. Maxwell reached out his hand for the child to take, and lifted her to her feet, letting her press against the back of his leg. The woman glanced behind to lock eyes before gesturing out the window, and then faced forward. Water continued to drip from the fringed ends of her towels and the strands of her hair. The man stood at the front, humming and swaying, tapping his foot in nervous anticipation.
Maxwell peered through the glass and saw what awaited them: The building was like an abandoned roadside attraction on the side of a long-neglected highway. With nothing but miles of flat, empty space in every direction, the bonfire glowing and spitting orange and red stood like a lighthouse on the edge of a storm. It seemed to serve as a guardian, a violent and wild entity posted between the bus and the entrance to their destination as a final arbiter.
The sight of the flames carried weight, and the heat seeped through the walls and sunk deep inside Maxwell’s mind as if it spoke in telepathic tongues. It told him the truth, burning away each mote of debris and dust, until the words filled the empty room like oxygen, screaming, shoving the images before his eyes, screaming, the amnesia melting away, screaming, unable to cling to the shadows disappearing in the blinding glare, the truth like a string of unspeakable obscenities, screaming, until it was all that was left in existence, and the room was consumed by the birth of the brightest star.
Maxwell saw it all. He saw everything. Acceptance was never a choice.
The bus driver opened the door, left his seat, and walked down the steps. He continued until reaching the edge of the bonfire, and turned to face the bus. Backlit by the light of the flames, his face was doused in flickering shadows, and no features or expression existed.
The passengers followed, proceeding in a line towards the building, and stopped short of the driver. He flourished his arm, gesturing for the group to make a circle around the fire. They all took their positions without a word, like soldiers carrying out a rehearsed protocol. The child stayed close to Maxwell, one hand holding the stuffed rabbit close to her chest, and the other clasped gently in his own. There were no thoughts to be had, no hesitation towards what was next to come. The voices in the flames beckoned for their release, and all machinations within the group’s minds were given freely, and cannibalized by the entity. What remained were the emptied rooms bleached and purified by the light of the infant stars now living within.
The building loomed over them like an alien monolith, its door the gateway to a dream yet undreamt. It was unremarkable on its own, a simple structure painted by decay, seeming to remain standing by sheer will and stubbornness. There were no windows, no architectural quirks to redeem its unkempt appearance; nothing of note but the solid, wooden door that only served as a point of interest for the possibility of what it contained. But there was something intangible that separated the building from any other abandoned structure forgotten by time. A magnetic energy pulsed from the ground beneath it, and soaked through its rotting walls. It was as if an entire city lived within it, waiting to come alive when the time was right, holding their breath until the stars returned to the black sky. Waiting for the ceremony to begin.
Maxwell let go of the child’s hand and stepped forward, letting the heat of the flames dance across his skin. The driver stood beside him, silent and masked by the night. An odor emanated from the driver, like sterile floors and chemical cleaner. He did not look at Maxwell, nor did any of the passengers. They all stared ahead at the fire, listening to it speak, hearing and accepting its words with no illusions left to obscure the message:
Surrender your tickets.
The switchblade unsheathed in his hand, and Maxwell held it up to the blood-red light. The reflections of the woman, the man, and the child shimmered along the serrated edge like hallucinations seen at the end of a dark hallway.
With the knife Maxwell cut into the hospital gown, tearing a hole over the center of his chest, and sliced down until revealing his entire abdomen. Silence became its own language shared by the group, only perforated by the cracks and pops of the fire growing larger and brighter as if feeding off each passing second.
The flood of recollection clawed to the surface and guided his hand as he stabbed the knife into his breastplate, making a Y-incision. He then dug his nails into the carved shape, and pulled from both sides until the bone snapped, and his insides lurched forward, and the pain spilled out like a howl, and the sutured organs pulsed and flinched in the cold, exposed and bleeding and alien to the body they inhabited. They were given, and they were now owed, and there was no time for thought, or for regret, or for remembrance. All that endured was the ticking of the clock, the ringing of the bell, the monotone note repeating, repeating, repeating, demanding not hesitation but action, as it understood that every second that ever expired and became the past had led to the moment required, the moment that would always be looming, waiting to be called upon, and no amount of fear, nor anxiety, nor numbness to the world would ever slow the coming of the present.
And so Maxwell stuck the blade into the cavity he’d created, severed the liver from the body, pulled out the organ, and threw it into the flames.
The man in the suit emerged from his trance, stepped away from the fire, and walked towards the abandoned building. The door opened, and he stepped inside.
Maxwell reached into the leaking wound and cut out the remaining kidney, and let it slide from his hand into the flames. The child stirred, approached Maxwell, handed him the stuffed rabbit, and walked towards the abandoned building. The door opened, and she stepped inside.
The heart began to beat like the war drums of an invading army, and disregarding the switchblade, he grasped the organ with his free hand and pulled, yanked, screamed, until the sutures tore away from the newly attached blood vessels, and it dislodged from his chest, seeping recycled blood that ran down his wrist, dripping onto the ground. He held out the heart, watching it twitch in his palm like a frightened animal, and hurled it into the flames.
The woman awoke, floated past the bus driver, took off the diamond ring, and slid it onto Maxwell’s blood-soaked hand. As the ring left her finger, the brief flash of recognition faded from her eyes, and she turned and walked towards the abandoned building. The door opened, and she stepped inside.
Maxwell stood alone before the fire, the switchblade and stuffed rabbit clutched in one hand, the ring adorning the other. The driver was beside him, more a shadow than a person, providing neither eye contact nor communication. Maxwell turned to look at the shadow, and there were no eyes to see, no mouth to speak. It was an inhuman and unfeeling vacuum, unmoved by the events and indifferent.
With the three items Maxwell approached the closed door to the abandoned building. It hummed and the wood was alive. He twisted the knob but it was locked and wouldn’t relent. It told him no. Please, he said, speaking through the empty hole in his chest. Let me through. I came all this way. I don’t want to be alone with it.
The bus driver remained stoic, standing before the bonfire, the flames’ light casting a shadow at its feet that made it appear as large as its presence felt. It was like looking at the galaxies above in the reflection of a lake.
Maxwell pounded on the door with his fist, panic crawling over the new star inside him like a black fungus, clouding the blank room of his mind. He clutched at the stuffed rabbit, begging for reprieve, his eyes closed, waiting for the nightmare to dissolve and for the door to swing open. He stroked the diamond ring, begging for the brittle memories contained within to float so he could cling to them like a raft in the ocean, but nothing came.
There was only the bus driver and the flames cackling at his back.
There had always only been one way out. Maxwell knew this, and had always known this. He had known this long before he ever understood what it meant, before he had ever gotten on the bus. Before he’d ever accepted that one day the bus would arrive. He had always known. It was imprinted on the stardust that birthed him, that was now enveloping him again, returning to the place from which it came. The ride was over.
Maxwell turned to face the flames, and walked forward, into the bus driver’s silhouette. He stopped at the bonfire’s edge, and the bus driver was there beside him. It reached out a hand, and Maxwell took hold.
The switchblade dropped first, consumed by the pyre, and the driver squeezed tight, refusing to let go. The rabbit next, swallowed whole and turned to smoke in the light, and the driver’s grip grew stronger as the weight of loss threatened to tear Maxwell from the ground.
With his footing regained, Maxwell’s hand slipped away from the driver. He pulled the ring off his finger, the diamond imbued with the red and orange glow. Alone, truly alone, Maxwell let it fall into the flames. The heat coaxed out the images trapped inside its beauty, released into the night sky as billowing smoke, and guided the now lifeless item into becoming a pile of ashes—indiscernible from the rest.
The driver walked away unacknowledged, got onto the bus, and drove. When Maxwell pulled his eyes from the fire, the bus was gone.
He had completed his end of the deal. There was nothing left but the reward.
Maxwell walked towards the abandoned building, silence becoming him, his hollowed abdomen the proof of a debt paid.
The door opened.
It crawled out from the frame like the tendrils of a living god. Inkblot-black. A shade of obsidian so pure it extinguished the burning fire and swallowed every molecule of light in the world, until it was as if nothing had ever existed—until the idea of existence itself was impossible to comprehend. It was the inevitable, intangible center. The source of everything. The canvas of Creation.
Staring back at Maxwell was an empty and endless chasm. Nothing.
All that remained was a single step.